The door of the Woodsman Tavern reads: “Opened 2011. Closed 2018. Opened again 2021.”
To which we ask why?
The Woodsman helped define Portland’s dining scene at a time when we were ascending to the top of national food destination lists—think dark wood interiors, menus filled with Oregon-raised ham, and bourbon and beards galore.
But the revival falls far short of its glory days.
Originally owned by Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson, the Woodsman was a success from the start, having been named one of GQ’s Ten Best New Restaurants in America and The Oregonian’s 2012 Rising Star. Diners went mad for signature dishes like a whole trout served in “crazy water” and gussied-up deviled eggs.
The quality of the food waned in the late 2010s, but the kitchen got a breath of fresh air with the entry of Top Chef finalist Doug Adams, who did a stint at the Woodsman while waiting to open Bullard inside downtown’s Woodlark hotel.
Sorenson eventually sold the tavern to John Gorham’s Toro Bravo restaurant group, which turned the Southeast Division Street location into Tasty n Daughters. That company collapsed in 2020 amid a combination of Gorham’s personal troubles and the financial fallout from state-mandated pandemic closures.
Now, the Woodsman is under the Submarine Hospitality umbrella (Ava Gene’s, Tusk), a company that has also faced challenges after being accused of fostering a toxic workplace culture.
That’s a lot for one tavern. As the Woodsman once again, Submarine has slapped a trendy smiley face on the neon sign out front and restored much of the aesthetic and menu you might remember—paintings of Mount Hood on the walls, oysters featured prominently on the menu (now $38 a dozen).
This total resurrection would be fine, except the food just isn’t good. And not in a “we swung for the fences and fell short” kind of way, but in a “we’re bunting” effort.
Take the Butcher Burger. At $24, it’s one of the most expensive in the city. The burger is made with 30-day aged beef, imparting a strong funk, and then topped with onions and a slice of gouda that remained mostly unmelted on the charcoal-grilled patty. The burger, which was dry, was served without condiments, but came with a full pitcher of dijonnaise on the side. We’re all for pricing menu items to reflect the reality of what it costs to source and make them, but at that price, we should be hungry for more.
The same went for a $24 cauliflower steak, which, while tasty, was simply two massive slabs of grilled cauliflower dressed up with mornay sauce. It’s the only vegetarian entree, and feels as though someone thought, “Oh, you’re plant based? Here’s a whole plant.” Solo, it would be a slog; if you’re sharing, you’re OK.
A New York steak ($32) arrived cooked to medium rather than the requested rare, again with a pitcher of sauce—this time bearnaise. That’s a classic combo, but somehow here it felt discordant.
The bone-in pork chop ($32), served with a pitcher (why all the pitchers?!) of huckleberry jus, was actually pretty great, the sauce adding a nice acidic punch to cut the richness of the pork. The Brussels sprouts we got on the side, however, were too crunchy for primetime.
We want to pause here and acknowledge that there are human beings running this restaurant—servers who were very pleasant and attentive, bartenders who make a mean boulevardier, and someone with a great eye for Oregon beer and wine to put together a stellar drink menu.
But Submarine Hospitality should know, and do, better. It’s been behind some of the most successful and inspiring openings throughout the years, and that has set the bar quite high for Woodsman.
Still, we’ll end on a high note: the baked Alaska. Oh, hunny, how grand it is to receive a flaming orb of meringue, holding within it a ball of coffee bean ice cream covered in an almond magic shell. There’s plenty of time to shoot video as the liquor burns off, and it’s hard to beat the combination of toastiness and cold ice cream. So, if for nothing else, go for dessert and a cocktail. Just don’t expect the alchemy of the past Woodsman; that’s been gone a long time.
EAT: The Woodsman Tavern, 4537 SE Division St., 503-342-1122, thewoodsmantavern.com. 4-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday.